At the Gartner Mobile & Wireless Summit this week in Chicago, I saw the usual dog and pony show from various smartphone makers, mobile software developers, and mobile management and security vendors. But something that surprised me was how many vendors were talking about wireless solutions for field service workers -- plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and various types of repair technicians.
When these folks come to your home and office, you don't currently see many of them carrying computing devices. Sure, nearly all of them carry cell phones -- sometimes multiple cell phones -- but when they're done, most of them still whip out a clipboard and a three-ply form that you have to press really hard to sign so that your signature comes clear on all three sheets.
Apparently, the IT industry sees these valuable workers as one of the next great untapped markets for business computing. One of the vendors aggressively going after this market is Tablet PC specialist Motion Computing, which released its F5 Mobile Field Tool this week at the Garter event. The F5 evolved from Motion's C5 Mobile Clinical Assistant, which has seen strong adoption in health care computing.
The specs for the F5 are:
- 10.4" XGA display
- View Anywhere screen for viewing in full sunlight
- Intel Centrino processor
- Up to 2 GB of RAM
- Windows Vista Business or Windows XP Tablet PC Edition
- Optional 32 GB solid state hard drive
- Integrated Wi-Fi
- Integrated Bluetooth
- Integrated 3G wireless broadband (optional)
- Multi-directional array microphone design with 2 microphones
- 2.0 megapixel camera
- Barcode scanner
- RFID reader
- Semi-rugged IP54 casing
Another company that is doing semi-rugged Tablet PCs is Data Limited Inc., which trotted out its DLI 8300 (below), a similar product that also has the option for a credit card scanner. DLI recently won a big contract with the world largest entertainment park to deploy its Tablet PCs as point-of-sale terminals throughout the facility.
Motion and DLI see a variety of other usage scenarios for these rugged Tablet PCs. "They are less a computer, and more a tool," said Mike Stinson, Motion's VP of Marketing. Some of the scenarios for these "tools" include:
- Transportation agents
- Insurance claims adjusters
- Warehouse workers
- Hospitality agents
- Line busting (collecting presale data from customers in long lines)
- Roaming ticket sales
- Mobile point-of-sale (cash register)
- Mobile return counter
- Mobile concession stand
These rugged slate Tablet PCs are about streamlining business process management. That includes going paperless, reducing input errors, more accurately tracking time, and speeding up data flow. Of course, all of that requires line-of-business software to take advantage of what the Tablet PC hardware can do and backend systems to handle the data processing. And it will also require some extensive retraining of field staff.
Thus, these tablet scenarios will make sense for large enterprises, most of which already have the infrastructure in place for training and backend synchronization. However, there are still a lot of field workers out there who are sole proprietors or freelance agents loosely affiliated with networks that send them business. It will be a much longer timeline for converting those workers over to these types of digital systems.
One of the things that could accelerate the process for sole proprietors is if they could have a full line-of-business client on the Tablet PC and a SaaS solution on the backend, where they could simply access their sales and P&L information from a Web browser.
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Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.